Perils of journey to Yemen no deterrent for thousands fleeing conflict and poverty in Africa

News Stories, 23 December 2010

© UNHCR/J.Björgvinsson
Exhausted survivors of a Gulf of Aden crossing wait for help on a beach in Yemen. In the first 10 months of 2010, 43,000 people made the journey from the Horn of Africa.

BAB EL-MANDAB, Yemen, December 23 (UNHCR) The fishing village of Bab El-Mandab, some 190 km west of Aden, in southern Yemen is the closest point in the Arabian Peninsula to Africa. Here, in a small office by a petrol station, staff of the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), a UNHCR partner organization, meticulously record the number of boats carrying migrants and refugees from the Horn of Africa which land in this country almost every day.

From January to October this year, some 43,000 people -13,000 Somalis and nearly 30,000 Ethiopians made the dangerous trip across the Red Sea or the Gulf of Aden in flimsy boats. An unknown number perished in the attempt. Far from the eyes of the world, a human tragedy of huge proportions has been unfolding for years.

Relying on an extensive network of contacts in the police, army, coast guard and among local villagers, DRC staff travel up and down the coast in search of recently-arrived migrants from Africa. They work closely with UNHCR and the Yemeni Red Crescent, which provides first aid, water and high-energy biscuits to the new arrivals.

Earlier this year, in the Al Kharaz refugee camp some 40 km west of Bab El-Mandab, UNHCR staff interviewed an Ethiopian man who had arrived in Yemen the day before. He looked haggard and morose. "I took a boat from Obock in Djibouti," he said through an interpreter. "To get there, I had to walk through the desert for two days from the Ethiopian border. I was kept by people smugglers in an isolated place near Obock with hundreds of others; men, women and children."

There was no food or drinking water, he explained. The smugglers sold bottled drinking water at extortionate prices. Those who couldn't pay had to drink water from some nearby wells. The water from the wells was salty and contaminated. "Those who drank it got sick and many died," he said. "Every day, while I was there, four or five people died of hunger or diarrhoea."

Since June, at least 40 Ethiopian men have died after arriving in Yemen from Djibouti. Their corpses have been discovered by local villagers or authorities near Bab El-Mandab and brought to the attention of UNHCR and its partners. A doctor at the medical clinic in Al Kharaz said that in three days in August they had admitted 26 Ethiopians suffering from severe gastroenteritis.

"Yemen allows Somali refugees fleeing armed conflict, gross human rights violations or persecution to enter its territory," said UNHCR Assistant Representative for Protection in Yemen, Ann Maymann. "This constitutes a lesson in what refugee protection is all about and many states could draw inspiration from Yemen. At the same time, the challenges are huge and more attention should be paid to the humanitarian situation unfolding here."

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world and faces many problems of its own, including internal conflicts. Some Somalis and most Ethiopians, don't stay, preferring to try and enter Saudi Arabia where they hope to find work as labourers, builders or housemaids. "If you have money, the smugglers take you by car to Saudi Arabia after you land in Yemen," an Ethiopian migrant explained. "If you don't, you have to walk all the way to the border."

On the way, some of the migrants and refugees fall prey to people traffickers, who sell them into sexual slavery and forced servitude in Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East.

On September 25 a court in Aden sentenced two men and a woman to 10 years imprisonment for trafficking a young Somali girl to Saudi Arabia. The girl was reunited with her mother and both have now left Yemen for a new life in Europe. Most victims of trafficking, however, are not so fortunate: it is estimated that some 12.3 million people around the world have been victims to human traffickers. The buying and selling of human beings for exploitation is tied with arms dealing and is the second largest criminal industry in the world after drug trafficking, and the fastest growing, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.

By William Spindler in Yemen




UNHCR country pages

Refugee Protection and Mixed Migration: A 10-Point Plan of Action

A UNHCR strategy setting out key areas in which action is required to address the phenomenon of mixed and irregular movements of people. See also: Schematic representation of a profiling and referral mechanism in the context of addressing mixed migratory movements.

Mixed Migration

Migrants are different from refugees but the two sometimes travel alongside each other.

Asylum and Migration

Asylum and Migration

All in the same boat: The challenges of mixed migration around the world.

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

Over the weekend, UNHCR with the help of the US military began an emergency airdrop of some 200 tonnes of relief supplies for thousands of refugees badly hit by massive flooding in the Dadaab refugee camps in northern Kenya.

In a spectacular sight, 16 tonnes of plastic sheeting, mosquito nets, tents and blankets, were dropped on each run from the C-130 transport plane onto a site cleared of animals and people. Refugees loaded the supplies on trucks to take to the camps.

Dadaab, a three-camp complex hosting some 160,000 refugees, mainly from Somalia, has been cut off from the world for a month by heavy rains that washed away the road connecting the remote camps to the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. Air transport is the only way to get supplies into the camps.

UNHCR has moved 7,000 refugees from Ifo camp, worst affected by the flooding, to Hagadera camp, some 20 km away. A further 7,000 refugees have been moved to higher ground at a new site, called Ifo 2.

Posted in December 2006

Flood Airdrop in Kenya

New Arrivals in Yemen

During one six-day period at the end of March, more than 1,100 Somalis and Ethiopians arrived on the shores of Yemen after crossing the Gulf of Aden on smuggler's boats from Bosaso, Somalia. At least 28 people died during these recent voyages – from asphyxiation, beating or drowning – and many were badly injured by the smugglers. Others suffered skin problems as a result of prolonged contact with sea water, human waste, diesel oil and other chemicals.

During a recent visit to Yemen, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Protection Erika Feller pledged to further raise the profile of the situation, to appeal for additional funding and international action to help Yemen, and to develop projects that will improve the living conditions and self sufficiency of the refugees in Yemen.

Since January 2006, Yemen has received nearly 30,000 people from Somalia, Ethiopia and other places, while more than 500 people have died during the sea crossing and at least 300 remain missing. UNHCR provides assistance, care and housing to more than 100,000 refugees already in Yemen.

New Arrivals in Yemen

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

The number of people arriving on the coast of Yemen after being smuggled across the treacherous Gulf of Aden from the Horn of Africa has more than doubled this year. So far this year, more than 18,000 people have arrived in Yemen across the Gulf of Aden, and nearly 400 have died attempting the journey.

This surge in arrivals is largely due to the continuing conflict in Somalia and the use of new smuggling routes from Somalia to Yemen and across the Red Sea from Djibouti. Many of the new arrivals also tell of crop losses due to drought, which forced them to leave home. This photo set focuses on those people leaving from Djibouti.

UNHCR has been calling for increased action to save lives in the Gulf of Aden and other waters. We have stepped up our work in Yemen under a US$17 million operation that includes extra staff, provision of additional shelter and assistance, and protection for refugees and internally displaced people.

Posted on 20 May 2008

The Gulf of Aden: Sharp Rise in Crossings and Deaths

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